Average and total utilitarianism

Average and total utilitarianism

All proponents of utilitarianism believe that the quality of conscious experience is important; indeed it is the basis of their consequentialist approach to ethics. However, it is unclear what it is that is supposed to be maximized: "average" happiness or "total" happiness. Two alternative answers to this problem are provided by average and total utilitarianism.

Total utilitarianism

Total utilitarianism is a method of applying utilitarianism to a group to work out what the best set of outcomes would be. [http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/oso/1102106/2004/00000001/00000001/art00014 Broome on standard total's utilitarianism] requires subscription] It assumes that the target utility is the maximum utility across the population based on adding all the separate utilities of each individual together.

The main problem for Total Utilitarianism is the mere addition paradox, which argues that a likely outcome of following total utilitarianism is a future where there is a large number of people with very low utility values. Parfit terms this the repugnant conclusion, believing it to be intuitively undesirable. [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/ The repugnant conclusion] ]

To survive the mere addition paradox with a consistent model of total utilitarianism, the total utilitarian has two choices. They may either choose to assert that higher scale living is on a completely different scale from the bottom levels of utility or deny that there is anything wrong with the repugnant conclusion. The first choice requires that one denies that a person on a higher scale of living can have their utility compared to those on the lower scale. Whilst, the second choice requires the denial of an intuition. Although, Sikora argues that we may already be living within this minimal state. [Sikora, R: "Is it wrong to prevent the existence of future generations?", . , 1978] Particularly as quality of life measurements are generally relative and we cannot know how we would appear to a society with very high quality of life.

Total utilitarianism can also be affected by Nozick's utility monster. A state where a being which has a greater ability to gain utility from resources takes all those resources from people in a fashion that is seen as completely moral. However, this would seem to only be relevant to populations with comparatively small total utility. Higher utility populations would require that the monster's be able to extract ridiculously large amounts of utility to be able to beat the totals of an entire population in addition diminishing returns would mean that as the monster got happier, the resources would not increase its happiness by the same amount as they did when it was less happy - if someone ate chocolate for the first time, it might seem amazing, but a chocoholic will not derive the same level of pleasure from it because they are used to it.

Total utilitarians do not advocate maximizing "population" itself, but total happiness. Whatever population produces the maximum amount of total happiness is their desirable one. At this population the cost of any additional people on total happiness would no longer be made up for with the benefit of their own happiness.

Average utilitarianism

Average utilitarianism works on the basis that the best utility of a group is to achieve the highest average utility among that group's members. [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-2638(198203)42%3A2%3C65%3AAU%3E2.0.CO%3B2-J Average Utilitarianism] requires subscription] So a group of 100 people each with utility value of 100 each is seen as better than a group of 1000 people with utility values of 99. More controversially and counter intuitively it means that a single person with utility value 100 is seen as a better outcome than than any number of people with average utility 99.

It may be that the problems of average utilitarianism are avoided if it is only applied practically. Assuming that the negative utility upon society of killing off people who do not meet average standards is great enough for this behavior to not be undertaken. Then the result only says that it would be better if low utility people had not existed. A statement with little bearing on practical morals.

The mere addition paradox is also a problem for average utilitarianism. It avoids Parfit's repugnant conclusion, but forbids what Parfit calls "mere addition". He argues that addition of extra, worthwhile lives which do not affect anyone else cannot make the outcome worse. [Parfit, "Reasons and Persons", ch. 19]

Average utilitarianism is treated as being so obvious that it doesn't need any explanation in Garrett Hardin's essay "The Tragedy of the Commons",Garrett Hardin, [http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/162/3859/1243 "The Tragedy of the Commons"] (section "What shall we maximize?"), "Science", Vol. 162, No. 3859 (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248. Also available [http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/162/3859/1243.pdf here] and [http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html here.] ] where he points out that Jeremy Bentham's goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number" is impossible. Here he is saying that it is impossible to maximize both "population" (not total happiness) and 'good' (which he takes as meaning per capita happiness), although the same principle of course applies to average and total happiness. His conclusion "we want the maximum good per person" is taken as being self evident.

References


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